With its victory in the Johor State elections, Barisan Nasional has won two state elections at a trot in four months. The run-up to election day was somewhat subdued, but the stakes are high, as the coalition rues its chances in the coming general elections.
It was an election that many felt was unnecessary. Chief Minister Hasni Mohammad was broadly accepted as a good leader and able to reach across political divides to ensure smooth state management even though he had a slim majority government. However, the sudden passing of Kempas assemblyman and former Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian in December 2021 tipped the scales. His death left the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition with just one seat more than the opposition.
With the success of the Melaka elections fresh on their minds, the coalition submitted a request to the Johor Sultan to dissolve the state legislative assembly. The reason, they said, was to ensure a clear mandate for better state management and policy-making. The Sultan consented, and the 15th Johor state election was set for 12 March 2022. Nomination day was on 26 February 2022.
With the 15th General Elections due by September 2023 and soaring Covid-19 infections due to the Omicron wave, many felt that the state election could have been avoided or, as has always been the normal practice, held at the same time as the national general elections.
The broad assumption was that BN wanted to build on its winning momentum and assess the viability of pushing for swift national elections if they were to win. This state election would be the benchmark for that all-important decision, especially with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) general assembly held on 16-19 March, just after the Johor elections.
Nomination Day: New Parties, New Faces
Nomination day saw an onslaught of new flags, faces and parties. In a state that has become used to the binary choice between the blue of Barisan Nasional and the familiar red rocket of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the election brought out many more shades of the spectrum: the green and white moon of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the blue and white eye of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the red and white banner of the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Added to the riot of colours were the barely discernible blues of Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) and Perikatan Nasional (PN), the solid black of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), the familiar red-blue logo of Parti Warisan Malaysia (Warisan), and the red and white fist of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).
Pick-up trucks cruised the streets with megaphones blaring party taglines. Ardent supporters whooped themselves into more excitement than the average onlooker, as they waved flags at all and sundry.
Many voters were confused by the new logos as well as the new coalitions. As most average citizens can barely keep up with the latest political manoeuvres, many were unsure as to which individual party came under which coalition — or for that matter, who was (or was not, as in the case of PKR) collaborating with another.
In line with popular demand, the candidates put forward were also often fresh-faced and less familiar. There were many younger candidates this time round; eight under 35 years, with the two youngest candidates being 26 years young. This was to cater to younger voters; while the much-celebrated Undi-18 cohort only made up 6.7 per cent of the electorate, 51 per cent of all eligible voters were aged 39 and below.
Added to that were the unprecedented multi-cornered battles, as many as seven to choose from in two seats (Tiram and Kempas), and a whopping 35 seats with four-cornered fights. Long gone were the days of a choice between just two entities. Neighbourhoods were transformed into a rainbow of fluttering flags across every available nook, cranny and junction.
Newer parties like Warisan, MUDA, Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM), PSM and Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra), had to overcome a lack of candidate, party and logo recognition. They also had a weaker grassroots machinery (or means) to reach out to their constituencies and plant party flags. For them, getting a decent amount of airtime in the media also proved to be a challenge.
Campaigning, Covid and the Big Guns
Given fears about Covid-19, large crowds and motorbike convoys of yesteryear became a thing of the past. Instead, candidates walked the ground in small groups trying to get to know their constituents in the short time they had. Stand-up spiels in coffee shops and open spaces often garnered smaller crowds.
An exception emerged in live footage of the rapturous crowds waiting to catch a glimpse of Najib Razak as he was whisked around the state. The former premier is believed to be the key factor in the rejuvenation of support for BN. His return to the spotlight is quite a reversal in fate for a man once excluded from General Election campaign material in Johor because of the stigma around 1MDB.
While Chief Minister Hasni’s photos adorned party paraphernalia, it was Najib who seemed to have a cult-like following. The BN coalition is hoping that his popularity and renewed persona as ‘man of the people’ will help them to swing back into power and regain a substantial hold of the federal government.
Yet early interviews with voters indicated a distinct disinterest in the elections. Many felt that the money and effort spent might be better used to help the economy recover, while youth were greatly disillusioned by politics, politicians and the double standards shown towards poor and desperate people who stole foodstuff over the pandemic period.
Interviews just before the Johor elections with rural youth indicated that they were not interested in voting. Said one: ‘We know that politicians and rich people can get away with breaking SOPs or walk free even though they are charged with a crime. But if normal people steal bread because they are desperate and have no more money, they go straight to jail. That could be us [sent to jail]. Why should we vote for them?’
Other voters said that they know the elections are just the result of politicians clamouring for power instead of working to help them survive these difficult times. ‘We can only help ourselves. Even if we don’t have politicians, we will be okay.’
Stalwarts of the United Malays National Organization, in contrast, were raring to go in the rural outskirts and worked hard to get their supporters to the ballot box. Many spoke with nostalgia of a time under ‘Bossku’ Najib when aid was accessible and life was Covid-free. Rural and coastal communities have suffered greatly since GE14 and rarely felt any financial or other improvements as the government changed hands a myriad times since 2018.
Polling, Voter Turnout, and the Inevitable Results
Voting day dawned clear and bright, and in the towns, it felt a little like Hari Raya as people were bustling about before heading out to vote. Many of the polling stations seemed empty, but others had lines of cars parked outside. It really depended on where you were in Johor. Voter turnout was later reported to be only 54.92 per cent.
Polling staff, volunteers and police that were asked, noted that everything was very orderly, with no large crowds which they were worried about and minimal issues related to Covid-positive voters.
Some new young voters reported that in some localities, older folks were hanging about to ask them who they selected. As they tried to evade the questioning, some of them were scolded for ‘opting for the wrong party’. These older voters’ devotion to their party of choice remains ever-strong.
Stalwarts of the United Malays National Organization … were raring to go in the rural outskirts and worked hard to get their supporters to the ballot box. Many spoke with nostalgia of a time under ‘Bossku’ Najib when aid was accessible and life was Covid-free.
As the 6 pm cut-off rolled round, Johoreans tuned in to television stations and online news portals to find out the results. BN party members waited expectantly at their mobilisation centres. Some of the other parties seemed to have disappeared from sight — social media reports indicated that the PN election headquarters was empty.
And so it was made clear, as the results rolled in, that BN had won with a supermajority, thanks in part to the low voter turnout, but mainly to the first-past-the-post electoral system. It was more than they expected and five out of 15 parties lost all their election deposits; 85 candidates in all.
As the excitement of the election came to an end, Johor and Johoreans returned to the humdrum realities and the running of the state government. A new Chief Minister has now been appointed and the ruling coalition needs to prove that it is worthy of the support it received. Johor desperately needs to get back on even keel, reopen its borders and revive its economy. Those who turned up to vote will be watching to make sure that election promises are kept.
Serina Rahman is an Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lecturer at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.